Interview: The New Deal
Unions: In the Line of Hire
Culture: Too Cool for the Collective?
International: The Domino Effect
Industrial: A Spanner in the Works
National Focus: Gathering of the Tribes
History: The Welcome Nazi Tourist
Bad Boss: Domm, Domm Turn Around
Poetry: Just Move On.
Review: Reality Bites
The Locker Room
The Secret Life of Us
It Is Still About The Members Isn't It
Out of Their Class
The Australian government and other member governments of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) signed the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) in 1994. It was signed despite negligible public debate and now the Australian government is involved in another round of GATS negotiations.
GATS applies to all services, from banking to transport and telecommunications, to education, health and water. GATS treats services as traded commercial goods, ignoring the environmental and social aspects of many services, which are so important to everyone's quality of life. GATS aims to promote international trade in services and to remove so called barriers to such trade.
Like other WTO Agreements, GATS rules are legally binding on all levels of government, and can be enforced through the WTO dispute system.
GATS has some rules which recognise the right of government to regulate services and to provide and fund public services. However, it defines public services ambiguously as those supplied neither on a commercial basis nor in competition with other service providers. GATS can therefore apply to public services, which have been exposed to private competition. Most governments have not yet listed public services like education, health or water in GATS, but they are being pressured to do so by transnational services companies which see these essential services as billion dollar markets for their plunder.
Discussion has also occurred about defining government funding of public services as 'subsidies' to which corporations might have access through competitive tendering, a form of privatisation.
There was very limited time for community submissions on the GATS negotiations. Campaigning by unions and community organisations pressured the Howard government to publish its initial offers, but it did so only after it had submitted them to the WTO.
Although it appears that no new offers have been made on essential public services such as education (schools, TAFE and universities), health, drinking water, audio visual or postal services, it is worrying that it is possible for such offers to be made during further negotiations.
We need to strongly oppose any continuation of the drift to privatisation of public services, including any proposal to give private transnational corporations access to public funding for these services. The Federal Government should exempt all public services even where there are private services of the same or similar nature. For example, there needs to be a guarantee that public schools and TAFE will not be subject to GATS, even though the Federal Government is trying to enforce an increasingly competitive education and training market.
Transnational education firms are already very active and not surprisingly so, as total world spending on education is about $US3 trillion. Glenn Jones, the Chief of virtual university Jones International Inc has said "Education is one of the fastest-growing of all markets. Private training and the adult education industry are expected to achieve double-digit growth throughout the next decade". Private virtual universities operate with minimal staffing and charge fees for Internet courses delivered across borders which may not confirm to national educational standards.
In the US and the UK, private firms have obtained contracts to manage public schools. In the UK, these firms include Proctor and Gamble, and Shell.
In the US, Forestry companies are providing curriculum material on the benefits of logging, the American Nuclear society has been reported to produce material which describes nuclear waste as harmless leftovers, and various food companies have sponsored reading programs in which the incentive is a sample of their product.
Australia could also be involved in requests to provide essential public services to developing countries in a framework that would not adequately protect their cultural identity, environmental sustainability and public benefit. Accordingly, we should insist that the Government publicly release details of its own requests to other countries in the interest of democratic transparency.
Meanwhile, the Australia - United States Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA) is being negotiated over the next two years behind closed doors. It is proposed to be a legally binding agreement to abolish all barriers to trade in goods and services and all barriers to investment between the US and Australia. Unfortunately the US sees many areas of social regulation of services and investment as barriers to trade.
The US Government and US corporations have targeted important Australian public policies and laws as "barriers" to trade, that "need" to be abolished or changed. If these laws caused "harm" to US corporations' investments, the Australian Government could be sued for damages. Services at risk include not only essential public services like education, health and water, but also the Foreign Investment Review Board, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and Australian Content Rules.
US corporations want to invest in education, health and water services, despite the fact that Australian people and their governments have democratically decided that public regulation and public provision of these is required to ensure that there is equitable access to high quality services.
Most Australians strongly oppose the privatisation of public services and see them as expressions of Australia's economic, social and cultural independence, which should not be signed away in a trade agreement. The Howard government says that this is still up for negotiation.
The concerns raised above regarding GATS also apply to the AUSFTA. We need to demand that the Australian Government not make any offers to the USA without there being an adequate period of public and parliamentary consultation. This should include the disclosure of all relevant information including any evidence or justification that the Government may have in terms of there being any net benefit to the Australian public by virtue of any AUSFTA. An independent study by ACIL Consultants has showed that there would be net losses to Australia from trade lost to other countries. Has the Australian Government taken any notice of this study? If not, why not? The Australian Government would be naive to think that the US Government would enter an agreement that advantages Australia over the US's own self-interests. As a much more powerful country, America clearly has a great advantage over Australia in terms of its bargaining power.
The Australian public would be outraged if any agreement was struck with the USA, which gave US corporations greater access to essential public services like education, health, or water. To stop this happening, the Australian Government must be lobbied to keep absolute control over these services, to ensure their equitable distribution to all Australians. We must also insist that our cultural, social, economic and environmental standards are as wanted by the Australian public, rather than being controlled by American big business.
All future trade agreements must be presented to the Australian Parliament for full public debate and democratic decision making before finalisation. This debate must be informed by a major independent public inquiry into existing trade agreements and future proposals.
We must urge the Government to exclude not only essential public services from any future trade negotiations, but also audio visual and cultural services, sale of medicines, quarantine standards, and the labelling and regulation of food (including for genetic modification).
Further information including sample letters, can be obtained on the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network Ltd website: http://aftinet.org.au/
Acknowledgment is given to Dr. Patricia Ranald and Louise Southalan of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, for much of the information provided in this article.
Phil Bradley is Assistant General Secretary (Post School Education) with the NSW Teachers Federation
|Search All Issues | Latest Issue | Previous Issues | Print Latest Issue|
© 1999-2002 Workers Online